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THE JACK-IN-THE-BOXES

    Once it was proposed that jack-in-the-boxes be held accountable for their actions.
    As might have been predicted, this idea met with immediate, often dismissive objections from many quarters. How could a jack-in-the-box be held accountable for anything, it was asked? You might as well blame a knee for jerking convulsively in reflex. Wasn’t the sum and substance of their very being precisely this ability to spring up, whenever their buttons were pushed, from the small, lightless boxes in which they otherwise spent their time? What purpose in life could a jack-in-the-box claim if it didn’t at a minimum pop up on command? 
    Those calling for jack-in-the-box accountability clearly hadn’t reckoned on the strength of this opposition or, for that matter, on the number of jack-in-the-boxes there actually turned out to be. The emergence of genuine antiques from drafty attics or dim basements—cracked reminders of infantile fears and flusters—would hardly have been surprising, but when freshly manufactured ones began to appear in ever-larger lots, clacking open and shut with mechanical vehemence, the extent of the challenge became clear.
    Although isolated instances of jack-in-the-box behavior might still have made at least a limited form of accountability possible, once the phenomenon spread nationwide, sheer numbers rendered any likelihood of holding them individually answerable for their actions increasingly remote.
    On the contrary, evidence of the slightest hesitation in following the expected pattern of automatic jack-in-the-box response began to raise questions about the motives of those viewed as not jumping fast enough or high enough. When rows of jack-in-the-boxes were marshaled at any public event, for example, from an admirably choreographed town hall meeting all the way up to a State of the Union address, and repeatedly erupted in a loud clatter that drowned out all understanding of what might actually have been said, any evidence of restraint or outright refusal to join in the noisy display was call for suspicion, even for expressions of scandalized shock, at the laggard’s woeful lack of real jack-in-the-box spirit. 
    Likewise, criticism of the frequent endangering of others caused by the wild excesses of willing jack-in-the-boxes typically led nowhere. Once the defense was raised that whatever one did or didn’t do as a well-oiled jack-in-the-box was just a matter of being true to one’s nature, only the smallest of them had anything to worry about. 
    In fact, if a jack-in-the-box was large enough and imposing enough, it could expect not only to be excused for even the most reckless moves once out of its box but also, as time passed, perhaps honored with a brightly colored bit of ribbon for unflagging true-to-form response or even raised to the ranks of the nation’s highest and consummate jack-in-the-boxes.
    Given the promise of such rewards, any concern on the part of these spring-loaded puppets that they might be held responsible eventually for the consequences of their antics was minimal. Instead, their chief worry seemed quite different.
    “With so many of us acting virtually the same,” a mere run-of-the-mill jack-in-the-box was more likely to worry, “how can I show I’m the quickest and loudest of all when it comes to demonstrating on cue exactly what’s expected of me?”